The 10 Commandments of SEO – Part 1

Kristen Holden
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10 Commandments of SEO

All too often, internal marketing teams or “the tech guys” at any given company think they know exactly what’s best for a website’s SEO strategy. This developer mindset is based on a view that’s considered programmatically correct. It’s quite often the way things have always been done, and continue to be done; “search” is given little value, as it’s attributed to being a marketing function.

For example, many developers are of the opinion that changing a site’s structure—adding in new content pages, editing title tags, and so on—makes no difference.

WRONG!

There are some fundamental rules that can be applied universally to any website, and they simply cannot be ignored. So, without further ado, let me climb atop my mountain of SEO wisdom and expound some of these gems to developers and marketers across the globe.

1. Thou shalt have content as close to the top level of thy site as possible

Every website has a certain “siterank,” which is the overall level of authority or trust attributed to a domain. For every given level (subfolder or page) that you drop down in your website’s architecture, you will lose some of that overall siterank, making that folder or page less valuable to a search engine. (This is looking purely at siterank, not the authority of individual pages based on their own incoming links.)

This may sound like a no-brainer when it’s laid out this simply, but it baffles me how many times I’ve had to butt heads with dev groups, management, or marketing teams at big companies. The key issue is that companies genuinely don’t understand why content and structure needs to conform to external search best practices.

A point to note: If you have a link from your home page to one that’s five levels deep within your site (with optimized anchor text), it’s still a powerful signal to a search engine that the content is important.

A simple but effective way to judge this is to look at how many clicks it takes to get from your home page to any given piece of content. The more clicks required, the less siterank will be attributed by external search engines. It’s that straightforward.

If your content isn’t sitting as close as possible to the top level on your site, you’re throwing away valuable siterank and losing traffic to your competitors.

If you want to read more on this area, here’s a great post about Site Architecture from Rishil.

2. Thou shalt group content into logical “buckets” based on topical relevance

Search engines try to think as much as possible like visitors. They go through your website, categorizing your content into themed groups, and developing associations between pages. If your content is spread out all over the place, each part of your site has less topical authority.

Let’s use an example. When you visit the supermarket, do you expect to have to go to the fruit section for one particular brand of cereal? Or the frozen foods section to pick up tinned tomatoes? This method wouldn’t make much sense, being likely to confuse customers in a supermarket, and it’s the same with your website. Essentially, all you need to do is use some common sense when grouping content on your site. If your company sells widgets, place all widget-related posts, pages, Q&A material, and anything else you have on the topic into a single area (folder). This will vastly improve your overall topical authority for widgets.

Think about your site from the top down. Pick the most generic topics that you need to cover and make them your “master categories.” From there you can split the content into areas that make sense to your users.

3. Thou shalt make it as easy as possible for users to share content

SEO isn’t about submitting to directories, spamming, and manipulating users’ actions (not anymore anyway!). The social buttons you see alongside almost every blog post on the Internet (including this one) are there for a very good reason. Gone are the days when link graphs only included basic elements.

The more that users share your content, the better that piece of content will rank. It’s really that simple. Sure, you still need a good syndication strategy; you need editorial and brand-based links from a diverse range of websites. But, ultimately, you need your everyday users to be sharing your content as much as possible across Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Digg, and various other popular networks.

It’s not difficult to do. If you run a WordPress site, install ShareBar or one of the hundreds of other social plugins. If you manage your own website on another platform, install plugins like ShareThis or AddThis. It only takes five minutes.

If you write great content and your users are given the option of sharing it with their friends, you will naturally acquire great backlinks and social authority.

4. Thou shalt not buy links or spam

I have bought links in the past. These types of practices work in the short term. Every day, I see sites flying up the rankings, using questionable practices. So let’s be clear, spamming still works, despite Panda updates and spamming crackdowns. Paid links still work very well today, too.

Back in the “old days” (around 2001), I used to have thousands of domains with millions of pages of indexed content. All the sites were interlinked—all from different Class C IPs; basically, a very sweet spammy setup. It worked exceptionally well for approximately 12 months, making thousands of dollars per day with next to no effort. I know the dark arts and have applied them in the past, but these days you could say I’m very much a reformed gray/white-hat SEO person.

Sitting back and watching your competitors use these sites today can sometimes be depressing. Knowing they’re taking advantage of everything that they can—and if you just bought a few links or took short-cuts, your website would be much higher in the rankings—that will leave you frustrated and annoyed. Let me give you a word of advice having been there and done that: shortcuts cost you in the end.

Google, Bing, and other search engines invest enormous amounts of time (and money) recruiting some of the smartest people in world to find and slam spammers, as well as punish paid links. You can be sure that although paid links and spam may work today, the industry is fighting against it, with the potential for you (or your clients) to lose a whole lot more than what you gained in the short term.

Assume that the search engines are smarter than you. Don’t try to game them. Focus on building long-term, sustainable traffic while delivering real value to users along the way.

5. Thou shalt always create high-quality content for users, not simply for search engines

We have all come across content on websites that ranks exceptionally well for its chosen search term, but when you land on it, you’re left wondering what the point of the page was. So, despite being a highly relevant page according to a search algorithm, users find little to no value in the content—and they leave.

I have a great example. Many years ago, I managed search for a large corporate entity (who shall remain nameless) through an agency I worked for. Their in-house contact had a bunch of content production outsourced—content that ultimately was published without any approval. The product was air conditioning systems, which ended up ranking rather well for some generic keywords relating to air conditioning. The problem was that the content read like it was taken out of an air-conditioning manual: technical, obscure, and highly detailed on the specific elements involved. I’m sure that’s just what users searching for “Air Conditioning Installation Melbourne” were after, right?

Needless to say, the conversion rate was horrible and the bounce rate was huge. It’s the worst possible outcome, as the traffic was completely wasted.

The moral of the story is this: having the most optimized piece of content with the highest LDA score counts for nought if users who visit your site find no value in it.

To drive traffic that will convert into sales, you need to write relevant, high-value content for your users on topics they want to read more on. This has the natural flow-on effect of vastly increasing the uptake in sharing and, consequently, rankings.

Add a new page to a website if you think the end user will benefit from having visited that page. Always ensure that the page and its content are optimized for conversions and rankings.

Summary

Ethical SEO isn’t rocket science. Build a website with content that is aimed at your end users. Group that content in logical ways that makes it easy to associate with specific topics. Make it easy for users to share your content with their friends. Resist the temptation to take short-cuts when building links or outsourcing work, and ensure that your site architecture is up to scratch.

If you can focus on these five points, you’ll be ahead of 90% of your competitors; long-term, your websites and those of your clients will receive the benefits. If you take short-cuts, eventually you can expect to be slapped by one of the numerous factors that devalue questionable practices. Stay tuned for Part II, where I’ll preach the remaining five rules you need to know to stay on top of the SEO game.

This post was inspired by Eric Ward and his well-known LinkMoses post.

I would love to hear about the issues you have faced throughout your career, and about any horror clients in particular. Post them in the comments section below.

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  • http://twitter.com/digideth digideth

    lets say there is a eCommerce site out there that has a left navagation menu that’s pretty long, lots of categories. As you dig into the left nav menu you start to see products being listed multiple times each time it’s under a different category.

    example: you have a red glow in the dark size 12 football cleats.

    the categories for the left nav are: red, glow in the dark, size, football and cleats.

    so you see those shoes in everyone of those categories in the left nav plus its also listed under 3 other categories that barely relate to the shoes. Those shoes are now listed 8 times in the left nav.

    The owner of the site explains the reasoning for doing that is “each category is a like a bullet in a gun so the more its listed the more chance of selling it”

    This cannot be a good thing for the shoppers or the search spiders.

    How can I explain to the owner how bad this is???

    • http://www.dangrossman.info Dan Grossman

      There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s not bad for a product to be listed in multiple categories; most major retailers do this! You can find flashlights listed under camping equipment, sports & outdoors, lighting, etc. As long as each product has one canonical URL there’s nothing wrong with linking to it from everywhere relevant.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002275604996 Eric Seiler

        Honestly, I think this is a bad practice as it destroys the relevancy of the category in question. Why even browse a category tree if it leads to a bunch of poorly categorized objects?

        IMHO it is better to use tags in situations such as these, as they are intended to link different base items through correctly identifying their properties.

        But, that is me. Interlinking is important, and deep category trees are a hassle to navigate (too many clicks). There isn’t one great solution, which is why most ecommerce websites implement multiple paths (Tags, Categories, Related Items, Search, etc.)

        • just in time

          Aren’t tags nothing more than 1 word categories?
          Who needs tags if categories are layered nicely…yes parents can have multiple children. To me, tags are just an excuse to for site wondering = unclear navigation that is somehow related.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=668397983 Kristen Holden

      There is nothing wrong with it per se, they can have it listed under each category but I would definitely be using a canonical tag to point things such as size and colour variations back to the one master page.

      Sometimes it’s simply a matter of showing them the difference some simple changes can make. Such as doing a test with the site structure of category listings. Perhaps adding a canonical tag to just one product, then show them the improvement in rankings over the other categories.

  • http://blog.emilysuess.com Emily Suess

    100% agreed on every last point, particularly the use of high-quality content!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=668397983 Kristen Holden

    Hi Zoekeen2,

    Is there something specific you need help on?… May be easier than just providing generic Joomla advice – I’ve used Joomla a whole bunch in the past, but more recently I’ve shifted almost everything over to WordPress.

    Cheers,
    Kristen

  • Greg

    I do agree with the advice above, but I think that the advice about providing high-quality content to users misses the target for an astonishingly HUGE number of sites– those sites that are product information sites. There are only “so many” ways to rewrite your marketing pieces, and your readers are not likely to be return readers. You’re not making a site to maintain traffic, you’re making a site so that someone searching for “Best Widget” will find your Widget site, learn about it, and possibly buy it.

    For sites like this, you can still have a blog section and try your best to write relevant, high-quality posts about Widgets, so that you become an expert in the field, but most of the time this isn’t realistic. Your Widget may be something fairly boring or a niche product. And until you’re the one who has to write the posts, it’s too easy and comfortable to be an outsider saying, “Oh, but if you have passion you can make ANYTHING interesting!” It’s just not that easy for what is essentially a “product brochure” site.

    Yet you still want people searching for Widget to find your site. And for those kinds of sites, if you can engage in a white-hat link building program either in-house or with a vendor, you are doing yourself a favour. Stick to the moral compass for sure (nobody wants to risk their company’s reputation by doing dodgy things), but quality incoming links from white-hat practices are still an important part of the SEO picture, and you should be trying to take advantage of that for the benefit of your company.

  • http://www.websiteseoprofessionals.com SEO Professionals

    Your search engine is your sole source of free traffic. Even if you’re getting traffic from forums or blogs – that traffic itself has started out as a search engine query. Don’t forget that – the search engines have the almighty power.

  • Anonymous

    We had a client who didn’t care about no.4 (Not to buy links or Spam). We had suggested that whilst some kind of grey hat type stuff might make a difference in the short term, he’d be kicking himself in the foot over the long term and he should be doing thing the right way.

    The client didn’t care – all he wanted to know is how much he had to spend to “guarantee” being at the top and if grey hat was the way to get it, so be it and he’ll deal with any long term problems when they arised. He didn’t want to wait for long term SEO to kick in.

    Walked away from that client in the end – if people aren’t prepared to listen and insist that their way is fine, then it’s simply not a good start to a relationship.